6,000 years before the wind


Sailing: Over millenniums, the design of sails and the vessels that carry them has evolved from trial and error to exacting science.

May 14, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

No one's sure how or when it happened, but a very long time ago, after man lifted his knuckles off the ground, someone realized that wind could be harnessed to push a boat through water.

Perhaps it was as simple as a breeze catching someone's cloak as he stood in a log canoe, suggests Thomas C. Gilmer, the Annapolis naval architect who designed Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II. Or maybe it was more complicated.

The Egyptians of 6,000 years ago traded regularly on the Nile, which flows south to north, and where prevailing winds blow conveniently north to south. People could have drifted downriver on papyrus boats and sailed back south. Tomb paintings from that era show boats with paddles, steering oars and shields, but no masts or sails.

"It is easy to imagine that when one or more shields were raised on poles to support canopies or act as banners, as they would have been during religious ceremonies and state occasions, someone noticed they also helped move the boat before the wind," wrote Derek Harvey in his 1977 book "Sails: The Way They Work and How to Make Them."

In other words, sailing -- an early means of long-distance travel and now multimillion-dollar sport whose practitioners use sophisticated computer models to marry hull and sail designs and feed satellite weather information into every calculation before they make a move -- probably was invented by accident.

As best as anyone can determine, changes in sail shapes and designs were, well into the 18th century, "a hit-or-miss affair with the main object being to set as large a spread of sail as possible," Harvey wrote.

That's a far cry from the technical types of today, who probably spend as much time at computer screens as on the water in their quest for the sail that will wring another tenth of a knot out of oceangoing racers.

"The sail is designed to be very specific to the boat," says Robert Hook, sail designer for illbruck Challenge, a German team in the Volvo Ocean Race. "It is designed to work with the ballast in the boat, the length of the boat and the beam of the boat. If you changed anything, you'd have to change the sail design."

Historians have a hard time tracing the evolution of sail, referring frequently to drawings of certain eras to illustrate their points but conceding that no one can pinpoint the date of certain developments. Nautical historians seem to agree, though, that the earliest representations of boats with sails come from the Nile in 3400 B.C., and that changes came slowly.

For century after century, the mast stayed forward, near the bow, and sails remained square and in use when the wind was behind the vessel. Hull designs and construction methods gradually changed but sail plans remained static.

Archaeologists sifting through ruins on the Greek island of Thira unearthed tiles that, pieced together, showed a long, thin vessel with a squarish sail on a single mast. The vessel dated to about 1700 B.C.

The Phoenicians of 500 B.C. built ships with rows of oars and with a mast that could be lowered before going into battle. The Romans of about 30 B.C. added a spar jutting from the bow. It was the mast for a small foresail called an artemon. Still, it was another square sail designed to run downwind.

Meanwhile, the Vikings were working the North Sea in long boats with a different type of hull construction, but still with one square sail on a mast situated forward and oar stations along the length of the boat.

Sometime before A.D. 1300, the lateen sail -- a large, triangular sail suspended from a yard, or spar, that juts at a 45-degree angle from the mast and is secured to another yard at the bottom -- appeared in the Mediterranean Sea. It was the beginning of the fore-and-aft rig, with sails running parallel to, rather than athwart, or across, the line of the boat. The rig allowed boats to sail closer to the direction of the wind.

"It's believed to be of Arabian origin, because we see it on the west coast of India and the east coast of Africa, areas that were under the control of the Arabian empire," says Maj. Grant Walker of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.

The sail got its name because it was seen by Northern Europeans in what were considered the Latin countries, wrote Bjorn Landstrum in "The Ship."

The Chinese came up with the idea of dividing square sails into a lattice of separate panels. They were efficient and easy to use but complex to assemble. And they were basically square sails.

Triangular sails do not use the wind to push a boat but to lift it as wings lift birds and airplanes. Wings and sails are airfoils. Wind passes over one side at a higher speed, causing differences in pressure and creating lift, which pulls a boat along and keeps birds aloft.

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